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The New Year started with renewed debates and discussions on the progress and direction of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. After the Kim-Trump summit in June 2018, there has not been any significant progress towards denuclearization and normalization of the Korean Peninsula. However, the developments at the beginning of 2019 have shown that increased and focussed attention will be paid to the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

 

China’s Positions

 

In 2019, Kim Jong-un became the first leader to visit China where he also celebrated his 35th birthday.  This visit underscores the point that China is still the most important ally North Korea has and that Kim will not take any decision without discussing it with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. In less than a year, this was the fourth time Kim visited China. No surprise then that Xi has finally accepted Kim’s invitation to visit North Korea. As per reports, he is set to visit North Korea in April 2019. If Xi visits North Korea, it will be a clear indication of the warming ties between the two sides. The last visit by a Chinese President to North Korea was in 2005 by Hu Jintao. It will also strengthen the notion that China is one of the key actors determining the direction of proposed North Korean denuclearization.

 

In spite of all the warmth, it is reported that the overall bilateral trade between China and North Korea fell in 2018. This was because Beijing decided to back the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on North Korea. The sanctions prevent other countries from employing North Korean labourers in addition to banning them from exporting machinery, industrial metals, equipment and vehicles to North Korea. This may have played a crucial role in pressuring the North Korean regime. In addition to this, Kim had visited China before he met United States (US) President, Donald Trump in 2018. There were speculations that Kim did discuss his upcoming meeting with Trump and was looking for guidance from Xi. The meeting was a clear indication that Beijing did play an important role in determining the course of Trump-Kim meeting even though it was not physically present in Singapore. The next meeting between Trump and Kim may happen in February and this recent visit may play a crucial role in shaping its agenda.

 

United States’ Agenda

 

The Trump-Kim summit of June 2018 in Singapore was indeed seen as a watershed moment. However, nothing major was achieved after that even though it was regarded as a major step towards achieving peace in the Korean peninsula, as already stated. Washington was and is convinced that till Beijing decides to play a positive role, the process will not gain adequate momentum. Kim’s dependence on China is clear by his regular visits to Beijing before making any important decisions. However, in spite of a lot of problems, it seems that Trump and Kim are ready to meet again soon. The follow-up meetings between Trump and Kim were cancelled with reports that Pyongyang was continuing with its nuclear programme. Though the location is yet to be finalized, some reports suggest that they will be meeting in Vietnam in February.

 

A lot has transpired after the meeting in June 2018. Even though the US had called for complete denuclearization, North Korea kept insisting that it would only start the process after the withdrawal of sanctions. Pyongyang further argued that it would not start denuclearizing until all nuclear threats to North Korea from the US are removed. There were also reports which argued that North Korea did not actually start the process of denuclearization, but has just stopped further testing and missile launches.

 

With respect to humanitarian aid following pressure from the United Nations, the UShas decided to reduce the stringent level of control on humanitarian aid. There were complaints that because of the American pressure, a lot of humanitarian aid was not able to reach North Korea. However, it has been relaxed now, hoping that it will also help in smoothening relations between the US and North Korea. Trump does appear very committed towards the overall denuclearization process. He recently concluded a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, the North Korean nuclear envoy. After the meeting, Trump announced that the meeting was “incredible”’ and the two sides had made “a lot of progress”. However, a lot depends on the second meeting and also on the direction and status of the economic sanctions, which are currently imposed on Pyongyang.

 

South Korea’s Moves

 

During his New Year address to the nation, the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in argued that China had played a very crucial role in helping the discussion on the denuclearization process and also improving the relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. In another important gesture, South Korea did not refer to North Korea as an ‘enemy’ in its 2019 defence white paper. Moon has played a very constructive part in nudging the talks on denuclearization in the right direction. He successfully concluded three Inter Korean summits in 2018, thus underscoring his commitment towards bringing peace on the peninsula.

 

Even though the overall domestic support for his policies has been quite low in 2018, the primary focus of Moon has been towards bringing peace on the Korean peninsula. In a letter by Kim to Moon, the former has expressed more opportunities of meetings between them. He has invested a lot of his energy towards this end. He is also confident that he can achieve it and may want to be remembered as the leader who managed the impossible.

 

Conclusion

 

The year 2019 is expected to lead to some very exciting and watershed developments with regard to the Korean peninsula. It may also prove to be an important year in giving shape to the North Korean denuclearization process. What direction the denuclearization plan will take is still not clear. However, it does appear that the United States, China and South Korea all have a lot at stake and will want it to be successful in this process. But one cannot ignore the unpredictable nature of the North Korean leader. All the current leaders will gain immensely from an ultimate and permanent solution. The peace on the peninsula will also help improve the economic conditions of North Korea, better the lives of the North Korean people, and improve the overall economy of the Korean Peninsula. The uplifting of sanctions will help the North Korean economy to interact with the global economy and benefit from it; and it will also make North Korea an active member of the international system. The year 2019 may prove quite crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

 

[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “North Korea as a Global Existential Threat” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.]

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.